Italy on the brink of Nations League finals despite coronavirus chaos

Roberto Mancini head coach of Italy issues instructions to Jorginho and Ciro Immobile of Italy during the UEFA Nations League group stage match between Italy and Netherlands at Stadio Atleti Azzurri d'Italia on October 14, 2020 in Bergamo, Italy.

International football in a time of pandemic sets many problems and Italy right now could provide a list of most of them.

The Azzurri are on the verge of making the Uefa Nations League finals, but this has been no ordinary lead-in. They face Bosnia-Herzegovina on Wednesday, a win guaranteeing progress, with neither of their regular captains, no manager on the premises and without 20 players who had been called up.

Roberto Mancini, the coach, has been self-isolating, having contracted coronavirus. He had hoped a negative test would allow him to return to the touchline in time for the trip to Sarajevo. He is still deemed infectious, although he has no serious symptoms.

Leonardo Bonucci, meanwhile, is unavailable and found himself in the bizarre position of giving the captain’s eve-of-match press conference ahead of the weekend’s 2-0 win against Poland to announce he was about to leave the camp.

The other regular skipper, Giorgio Chiellini was already ruled out with injury. By the time Mancini’s assistant Alberico Evani listed the starting XI, a group of more than 40 call-ups had been halved by withdrawals.

The vast initial squad was a precaution. Covid-19 cases, and the knock-on effects, are a fact of life in a sport where testing is frequent and protocols rigorous; but once elaborately designed ‘biosecure bubbles’ are being pierced by footballers having to travel across the globe it is wise to have a Plan B and Plan C at the ready.

Bonucci articulated one of the secondary effects of the pandemic, the fatigue caused by a crammed schedule. “We are programmed and trained to play a lot of football, but we started this year without a pre-season,” he said, explaining that to play for Italy this week risked aggravating injury. “With all the games, that increases injuries. I have been asking too much of my body.”

He was careful to acknowledge that elite footballers’ challenges were insignificant in the broader health crisis. “Covid is attacking the world,” he said, “but in every sphere, we need to have the right strategy for it.”

Bonucci joined Chiellini, Marco Verratti and Ciro Immobile on the list of Italy’s unavailables – to name just the very senior men who form the spine of Mancini’s ideal XI.

Immobile, winner of last season’s Golden Shoe for his 35 Lazio goals, is out because of conflicting results from two Covid-19 tests.

Gaetano Castrovilli and Cristiano Biraghi withdrew because of an outbreak of infections at their club, Fiorentina. A similar alarm at Roma has excluded a quartet of Italy players.

“To be honest, I lost count of how many players had to drop out,” sighed Evani, consulting regularly with Mancini about how to fill the many gaps. “By the weekend, we didn’t have too many left. But I always believed we give our best in adverse conditions.”

The Italy national team has been constructing legends around its strength in adversity for decades, evoking the last two Azzurri World Cup triumphs. In 1982 and 2006, Italy became champions after damaging match-fixing Serie A scandals overshadowed the lead-in to the tournaments.

On Sunday, Mancini watched his depleted team rise to the occasion on television, keeping in touch with Evani on the touchline.

A stylish, ebullient Italy beat Poland in Reggio Emilia. Poland’s Robert Lewandowski was kept quiet by a centre-half pairing – Francesco Acerbi and Alessandro Bastoni – who had 10 caps between them (Chiellini and Bonucci have more than 200).

There were lively showings from players who have spent periods of the club season feeling marginalised, such as Emerson Palmieri of Chelsea and Federico Bernardeschi of Juventus. Lorenzo Insigne, whose performances for the national team have not always matched his influence for Napoli, shone.

“A beautiful Italy,” said Mancini, “a great team performance with the right attitude when things had not been easy.”

Mancini quickly counted up not the absences but the coefficient points that a successful weekend had brought to Italy, meaning they will be seeded in the qualifying draw for the 2022 World Cup.

The Italian Federation hope Mancini will lead the Azzurri there. He has already guided them to the Euro 2021 finals and perhaps to a first Nations League finals.

All of which marks progress since the night, three years ago, when Italy lost 1-0 to Sweden in the first leg of their play-off for the 2018 World Cup, a deficit they could not recover.

Only one player, Andrea Belotti who was on the pitch when the Swedes scored the goal that kept the Italians out of that World Cup was involved against Poland, proof that Mancini has moved the country onwards and upwards, and has a genuinely broad base of talent in case of emergency.

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